Sunday, December 22, 2013

Sweetness at the Holidays

I received a most unexpected holiday gift in the mail this past week. I will tell you the story, which starts when I was a eleven years old and my family moved to a house on Kingston Avenue in Schenectady. Across the street from us lived a Greek Orthodox family with three children, all younger than I. My little brother befriended their son Emmanuel, whom they called “Manόly,” and the boys played together often. Manόly taught him how to ask “Where is Manόly?” in Greek, because Manόly’s grandmother, who spoke no English, looked after the children a lot of the time and she was always home. The only problem was that when she answered my brother to tell him where Manόly was, she answered in Greek. So he couldn’t understand her.

My brother remained more friendly with this family than any of us. I barely knew them. Last year, I became friends with the eldest daughter in that family, Dena, on Facebook. We had both commented on one of my brother’s posts and we wound up becoming friends. We talk to each other a couple time a week now on Facebook and we share a love for cooking. Here comes my holiday gift.

Last week, Dena posted photos of the luscious baklava that she had made (sheets and sheets of it) for the holidays. I was drooling over the photos on Facebook, even though I don’t eat gluten anymore. (I swiped her photo to attach to this blog.) A few days ago, Dena sent me a message on Facebook to say that she couldn’t resist sharing her baklava with me, knowing that I, too, am a “foodie” (love to cook, love to try new recipes, love to eat healthy food). So two days ago I received a box of homemade authentic Greek baklava via express mail. I really don’t eat gluten, but a gift like this, well one must make an exception. I ate a piece (saving the rest for my children) slowly, savoring it to the last drop of honey.

Dena's baklava and turkey soup cooking on the side.

I love the holiday spirit, that brought me this treat, from this woman whose life has now intersected mine again after all these years. I find it extraordinary the way our lives intertwine and wrap around one another, arcing away and bending back. How can we ever know who will disappear from our lives forever, who will return after years lost, who will enter tomorrow and stay with us through thick and thin? How can we know that homemade baklava is in the mail for us from someone special, someone new, someone generous, someone from our distant past, someone reconnecting?

Have a wonderful holiday season y’all. I’ll be enjoying time with my children – all of them coming home, and this year we have Akili’s fiancée with us for Christmas for the first time. Life is as sweet as baklava.

[Excuse me if I don’t blog next weekend. I might take a week off.]

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Cuisine as Peacemaker

I read a review of an extraordinary cookbook called Jerusalem not long ago and out of curiosity I checked this cookbook out of the library. I’m in love. I need my own copy (now high on my Christmas list). Israeli Yotam Ottolenghi and his Palestinian business partner and co-chef Sami Tamimi have produced a gorgeous collection of delicious recipes that live in their shared memories of growing up on opposite sides of Jerusalem. In the inspirational opening pages of commentary before they present their recipes, Ottolenghi and Tamimi write that they “imagine that hummus will eventually bring Jerusalemites together, if nothing else will.”

These two chefs own a collection of restaurants in London, where they both relocated while in their teens. In 1968 Tamimi was born in Arab East Jerusalem and Ottolenghi was born in Jewish West Jerusalem. Tamimi is a Muslim and Ottolenghi is, almost improbably, an Italian Jew. They met when Ottolenghi applied for a job in Tamimi’s restaurant. Before long they had become business partners and they are lately the darlings of London. I can see why. The recipes they offer in Jerusalem slay me. I want to cook all of them. I want to cook my way through their book the way Julie Powell cooked her way through Julia Child, (except I’ll have to skip the meat and fish recipes since I’m vegetarian – but not a problem since the book is loaded with vegetable, bean, and grain recipes). An entire section of the book is devoted to condiments, such as dips and sauces. Yes! I remember the night my family arrived in Israel for a visit when I was 16 years old and our cousins took us to eat at a Palestinian restaurant in East Jerusalem, the “Old City.” There must have been at least a dozen different little bowls of these kinds of condiments on the table and my entire heavenly dinner consisted of dipping pita bread into all of them and savoring the different flavors.

Ottolenghi and Tamimi point out that Jerusalem is a city of many cultures. The city is home to Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Hasidic Jews originating in Poland, non-Orthodox Jews from Tunisia, both religious and secular Jews from Libya, France, Britain, and the U.S., Sephardic Jews who have lived in the Holy Land for generations, Palestinian Muslims, Christian Arabs, Ashkenazic Jews from Eastern Europe (including Germany, Romania, Lithuania, etc.), and newly arriving Sephardic Jews from Morocco, Iraq, Iran, and Turkey, Armenian Orthodox, plus Yemini Jews and Ethiopian Jews as well as Ethiopian Copts, Jews from Argentina and India and Uzbekistan. The list goes on and on, with so many faiths, colors, nationalities; and flavors at the dinner table, mouth-watering aromas in the streets.

Some of the recipes that make me drool (and the photographs are to-die-for) are:
  • Roasted sweet potatoes and fresh figs with chiles and soft goat cheese.
  • Fava bean “kuku” (a sort of frittata -- eggs) with barberries, onion, cream, garlic, dill, and mint.
  • Roasted butternut squash with red onion, tahini, pine nuts, and lemon juice. (I just made this one last night – so yummy.)
  • Artichoke salad with arugula, mint, cilantro and pecorino romano cheese.
  • Swiss chard fritters with cilantro, dill, nutmeg, garlic, eggs, and feta cheese (lemon wedges on the side).
  • Fried cauliflower with tahini.
  • Chermoula eggplant with golden raisins, green olives, almonds, Greek yogurt, and a heap of other ingredients.
  • Saffron rice with barberries, pistachio, dill, chervil, tarragon, and other herbs.

Lentils, eggplant, chickpeas, sesame, olives, tomatoes, goat cheese. Take me there. I dreamed about the Swiss chard fritters last night. I’ve got to start cooking these recipes.

The introductory pages of the cookbook tell a brilliant story of hope, peace, and reconciliation. Jews and Arabs have been known to go into battle over the question of who invented hummus. Hummus is a very emotional issue for our people. The conflict about ownership of ethnic food is often ridiculous, but it runs deep. For instance, a section of the text is devoted to a discussion of za’atar, a key ingredient in Palestinian cooking. (The authors say that it is a form of what the English call hyssop.) It has traditionally grown wild in the mountains surrounding Jerusalem and was at one time easy to find and pick in the wild. The authors explain:  “za’atar has joined the long list of thorny subjects poisoning the fraught relationship between Arabs and Jews because Israel declared the herb an endangered species and banned picking it in the wild.” To read what Ottolenghi and Tamimi write about the shared food of their cultures as well as the many others found in Jerusalem, one would think that if the Israelis and Palestinians would only sit down and eat together then peace would come to the Middle East.

What a lovely concept. I plan to do my part by cooking as many recipes from Jerusalem  as possible in the coming year. At the end of the Passover Seder in the spring we say, “Next Year in Jerusalem.” For me it will be Next Year Face Down in Jerusalem Food.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Experience v. Ownership

A relatively recently coined name for my children’s generation is the “Millennials.” It is apparently used to refer to people born after 1980 who grew up in the digital age. A couple of months ago I read an article in an online journal that tracks changing cultural trends. The article reported that Millennials are less inclined to spend their money buying things than they are to spend it doing things. The reporter cited trends in car ownership among Millennials and claimed that more young people use public transportation than ever before; saving the money they would have spent on car payments, insurance, and maintenance to pay for experiences instead.

I’m not sure I buy the notion that this generation values experiences over possessions any more than any other youth generation. I think that twenty-somethings have always had a high regard for travel, night life, concerts, events, food, new experiences, and doing things with friends. That sort of goes with the territory of youthfulness. When I was in my twenties I could fit everything I owned in the back of my car until I was about 26 and I bought a piano. Perhaps the Millennials truly are less likely to buy a car or house (or piano) or to saddle themselves with a lot of stuff to haul around than previous generations. This shift probably has a lot to do with the trashed economy.

The economy, my economy, has definitely made me question the wisdom of home ownership, which I’m no longer convinced is all it’s cracked up to be. It seems so excessively expensive to own and maintain a home, pay taxes, insurance, all that ridiculous mess. Moreover, looking around at all the stuff I have accumulated over the years makes me weary. So much of it is just “chotchkes” (a Yiddish word for little trinkets, such as pin dishes, candleholders, souvenirs, and the porcelain elephants on my desk). Lately I find myself longingly remembering those days when I could fit everything I owned in my car. Does anyone want to buy a piano?

My goal for the coming year is to simplify my life by unloading possessions. I have always recognized that my real wealth lies in the web of relationships with friends and family that mean so much to me. I’m sorely tempted to abandon home ownership, but that’s not likely to happen since my husband is adamant that owning a house makes more financial sense than renting. You can count on Ron to keep me from moving into a trailer park, I suppose.

Valuing experiences over possessions sounds good to me, even though I am not a Millennial. I have a childhood friend who has created a family tradition of taking her children on a vacation (often in a foreign country) every year at Christmas. I applaud her for this choice and envy her for having the financial means to do it. We have many sweet old-fashioned traditions in our own family, and Millennial statistics aside, my children say each year that all they really want for Christmas is Dad’s chicken and biscuits. (That’s my biggest Christmas gift right there, thank you.) This holiday season I’m thinking in the direction of experiences as gifts for my Millennial offspring. I have done this in the past, but not as deliberately as this year; not as a concept. Obviously I’m a lousy consumer; and this holiday season I intend to become even worse at it. 

Sunday, December 1, 2013

A Little Help from My Friends

“I get by with a little help from my friends,” a line from a Beatles song. Joe Cocker sang the heck out of it at Woodstock. I was feeling it on Thanksgiving, spent with friends with whom I go way, way back. A touch of relief to lean into conversation with people who know me so well, who love me for all the good in me and who put up with my flaws and failings, which they also know (oh they do know). They have heard my stories and they have listened to me whine about the same stuff for years. And they love me anyway. My homies. My contemporaries, who are going through similar life changes as I.

One couple just sold their house and are almost moved out, preparing to make the transition to their downsized retirement home. They’re exhausted, but so ready for this transition. While undergoing this major upheaval they’re also dealing with the failing health of the mother of one of them. She is in hospice on the other side of the country. They can’t possibly go to be with the family this week because of the move. As I anticipate the upheaval of our impending move from our large house to a downsized retirement house in the coming year, I so sympathize with their situation. Although I am extremely fortunate to have my aging father still in good health at the moment, I have a dear friend in her 80s who is camping out in the hospital with her dying husband halfway across the country. I wish I lived closer to her so I could offer more tangible support. This is the way of me and my friends in this stage of our lives. Transitioning to retirement situations while coping with the loss of friends and parents in their 80s and 90s.

Another friend who was at our Thanksgiving gathering is dealing with the failing health of his mother, now in her 90s. He and his sister on the East Coast speak every day as they work out plans to move his mother into 24-hour care when she leaves the hospital. A third friend is worried about her mother, now in her 80s, who fell and broke her ankle while in the middle of a course of chemotherapy for bladder cancer. Her mother seems stable for now, has finished chemo, and will get her foot out of “the boot” soon. But this mother also lives at some distance from her daughter, my friend. This friend also recently learned that the property on which her rental home sits is going to be put up for sale. Will she have to move? Unknown at this time, but she must face this possibility.

Moving house is major work no matter when it happens or how you approach it, but the older we get the more major work such a move becomes. I can’t lift boxes like I used to. Just remembering where I put things in my current home is challenging, let alone remembering during and after a move. I am facing this challenge once again in the next year. And in the meantime concerned for my friend with the dying husband. Thwarted in offering more support by the distance between us. At the back of all these concerns is always the issue of figuring out how to make our finances work out in retirement. Plus Ron’s health requires constant focused attention by both of us, constant vigilance. So much upheaval. So many transitions. Such uncertainty. The crystal ball is extremely clouded. But, I suppose it was never clear.

I do many things to prevent myself from becoming too stressed out. I walk every day in beautiful Mendocino. Enjoy the gorgeous autumn, the magnificent splendor of the trees. I take a terrific herbal adaptogen. I watch football (that sure takes my mind off everything). Pet the cats. Drink a lovely cup of tea. But stress happens, despite my best efforts. On Thanksgiving, I was reminded of the good medicine of spending time with longtime friends. Hanging with my dear friends, friends who have a history with me, friends who are my contemporaries and are experiencing many of the same challenges and losses that I am, made a difference in my life right now that I had not anticipated. Their companionship was such a comfort. Such a boost. Although I know in my head that my friends are there for me, I felt it in my heart on Thanksgiving. Truly something for which to give thanks. 

In case you didn't catch this photo on Facebook, here it is again, for a chuckle. I sculpted a turkey from veggies to grace our Thanksgiving table. Ron took this pic of it when I did a trial run assembly the night before. Note the latkes on the side.